The National Academy of Sciences Releases Report on Science Communication

Anna Hatch

A new report has found that a one-size fits all approach is not the best strategy to engage and educate non-scientists. The National Academy of Sciences’ report, Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda was the subject of a public discussion hosted by the  Academy on January 10 in Washington, D.C. Research!America board member and AAAS CEO emeritus Alan Leshner, Ph.D., moderated the discussion, which included representatives from academia, government and news organizations. He noted that science communication is “an acquired skill, not innate.”

The report concludes that it is time to leave the “deficit model” of communication behind. This model suggests that people do not accept scientific results strictly due to a lack of knowledge or understanding. The committee found that communicators were often unsuccessful when they focused solely on providing information to achieve communication goals. This result can sometimes be difficult for scientists to accept, because they are trained to use data to inform their own decisions. However, decision making is more nuanced; people incorporate their own beliefs, values and interests into their choices.

The “loading dock” approach of science communication is common but fails to produce positive results, noted David Herring of NOAA’s Climate Program Office. Too often scientists release a ton of information and people retrieve what they want.  Effective communications, he said, requires art and inspiration, and an understanding of people’s motivations. Washington Post editor Laura Helmuth explained her commitment as a journalist is to make science reporting as interesting as the sports pages.

Michigan State University Professor Thomas Dietz commented that most people don’t think about science unless it impinges on decisions they have to make. Facts matter but they aren’t always enough to guide decision-making.

In order to learn which communication tactics work, it is important to define specific outcomes. To reach this objective, the report identified five goals for communicating science and found that individualized strategies are needed to effectively convey information to target audiences.  

Dartmouth Professor Brendan Nyhan also highlighted the need for more collaboration between scientists and communicators, explaining that there’s no “magic solution” that will change minds. Partnering with intermediaries in the community is one way to bring science information to diverse populations, he added. 

Rutgers Professor William Hallman reminded the audience there is strength in numbers in communicating complex topics. A thousand voices saying the same thing consistently can be powerful, he noted.  

Anna Hatch is a Research!America Communications Intern.

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